Step Into My DeLorean
2005 was a great year for making websites. The tech industry was starting to rebound from the bursting of the Dot Com Bubble and Web 2.0 was in full effect. Ruby on Rails, a platform that simplifies the early stages of web application development, was rapidly approaching version 1.0 with much fanfare. Optimism was running high, and with optimism came the NDAs.
A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA for short) is a contract that allows two or more parties to share information but prevents those parties from sharing said information with others. In 2005 it was pro forma to sign NDAs before job interviews or when meeting with investors or contractors but even a friendly lunch with a tech-oriented peer could produce a binding contract. Protecting your million-dollar idea was the order of the day, at least until Derek Sivers laid waste to the entire notion in just 130 words.
Ideas are just a multiplier of execution is a blog post by the founder and then-president of CD Baby Derek Siver that turned the NDA from a badge of honor into a bozo filter. It laid out a simple formula for the true worth of an idea: multiply the quality of the idea by the value of your execution. Like so:
Having the dollar sign on the execution side of the equation makes all the sense in the world because you don’t get paid for thinking, you get paid for doing. Side note: you can definitely tell that this concept is nearly ten years old because the max value of any idea / execution combo is $200M (for my readers using the Metric system, that’s a deciSnapchat). Unfortunately, the mentality behind this has lead companies with solid execution to pursue mediocre ideas.
BREAKING: Huge Corporations Are Missing The Point
One of the big “success” stories of 2013 was Upworthy, a site that produces viral-but-meaningful content, for varying values of “meaningful.” Mostly notable for their click-bait headlines, Upworthy has spawned an infinite number of pageview chasing clones, but one in particular will shock you (trigger warning):
CNN was rightfully castigated by people who care about journalism (cough) but their behavior, while vile, makes a certain kind of economic sense. Their news organization is consistently (regardless of content) a million-dollar execution machine. Tossing a one-dollar idea at it still makes a million dollars in pageviews. By following Upworthy’s click-bait recipe, CNN traded their own ideas for a shallow approximation of the original.
The Thing About Recipes
Two years ago, my buddy Yao and I (mostly Yao) collaborated to make David Chang’s Momofuku Ramen out of his completely awesome cookbook. It took us a day and a half and the result was awesome, but no one is mistaking either one of us for David Chang. On the flipside, I make a pretty decent pot of chili, but if David Chang were to follow my recipe, people would wonder why he was lowering himself to the status of an enthusiastic home cook from the midwest. CNN shouldn’t be following Upworthy’s recipe either.
The use of formulas are attractive because they allow for quick replication of winning ideas but when you’ve established yourself as a leader you have to keep delivering new, original ideas rather than cynically following the latest trends.